Definitions

Western philosophy

History of Western Philosophy (Russell)

A History of Western Philosophy And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1945) by the philosopher Bertrand Russell is a guide to Western philosophy from the pre-Socratic philosophers to the early 20th century. "A History of Western Philosophy" contains both the ideologies of other philosophers as well as Russell's own interpretation of those ideas.

Background

The book was written during the Second World War, having its origins in a series of lectures on the history of philosophy that Russell gave at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia during 1941 and 1942. Much of the historical research was done by Russell's third wife Patricia. In 1943, Russell received an advance of $3000 from the publishers, and between 1943 and 1944 he wrote the book while living at Bryn Mawr College. The book was published in 1945 in the USA and a year later in the UK.

Content

The book is divided into three books, each of which is subdivided into chapters; each chapter generally deals with a single philosopher, school of philosophy, or period of time.

Ancient Philosophy

Catholic Philosophy

Modern Philosophy

Reaction and Aftermath

Russell himself described the text as a work of social history, asking that it be treated in such a manner. Whilst often praised for Russell's humorous and accessible style of writing, the text has also been regarded unfavorably for its concentration on pre-Cartesian philosophy as well as over-generalization and omissions.

The book was an immediate commercial success and remains in print since its first publication. When Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, the History of Western Philosophy was cited as one of the books that won him the award. The success of the book provided Russell with much-needed financial security for the last quarter-century of his life.

Reviews

"A precious book ... a work that is in the highest degree pedagogical which stands above the conflicts of parties and opinions." - Albert Einstein

"Parts of this famous book are sketchy ... in other respects it is a marvellously readable, magnificently sweeping survey of Western thought, distinctive for placing it informatively into its historical context. Russell enjoyed writing it, and the enjoyment shows; his later remarks about it equally show that he was conscious of its shortcomings." - A. C. Grayling

"Embodies what seems to me the worst features of Lord Russell's previous more journalistic works, but it is of a poorer quality than any of these." - Yorick Smythies, a supporter of Russell's former pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein

"Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy is amusing, but suffers from defects ... First, it deals largely with ancient philosophy, and is curt and selective in its treatment of the post-Cartesian tradition. Secondly, it is dismissive towards all those philosophers with whom Russell felt no personal affinity. Thirdly, it shows no understanding of Kant and post-Kantian idealism. It is, for all that, a classic of wit, elegance and resolute idiosyncrasy." - Roger Scruton

"Mr. Russell's qualities as a writer and thinker ... are of a high order: deftness of wit, vigor of mind and suppleness of style. Yet their presence ... do not save the book ... from being perhaps the worst that Mr. Russell has written.... As one would expect, the author is at his best when dealing with present day ideas, if for no other reason than his large share in their inception.... By contrast, his treatment of ancient and medieval doctrines is nearly worthless." - Leo Roberts

"A History of Western Philosophy errs consistently in this respect. Its author never seems to be able to make up his mind whether he is writing history or polemic.... [Its method] confers on philosophers who are dead and gone a kind of false contemporaneity which may make them seem important to the uninitiate. But nevertheless it is a misreading of history." - George Boas

"History of Western Philosophy, a vulgar, but representative book." - George Steiner

Russell himself had something to say about the book: I regarded the early part of my History of Western Philosophy as a history of culture, but in the later parts, where science becomes important, it is more difficult to fit into this framework. I did my best, but I am not at all sure that I succeeded. I was sometimes accused by reviewers of writing not a true history but a biased account of the events that I arbitrarily chose to write of. But to my mind, a man without bias cannot write interesting history — if, indeed, such a man exists.

Notes

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